Memorandum from UACE/NIACE (HE 147)
UACE is a membership organisation which represents
the interests of continuing education within higher education.
It acts as a forum for the discussion of policy issues within
higher education in relation to lifelong learning and the broader
widening participation agenda, and formulates policy accordingly.
UACE has institutional representation on its Council from over
100 Higher Education Institutions in the United Kingdom, representative
of the whole sector.
NIACE's involvement in higher education goes
back to the 1920's, and it has some 50 Universities in membership.
From the late 1980's, the Institute has published policy discussion
papers on adults in higher education, including one of the first
investigations into student retention in further and higher education:
"Staying or Leaving the Course" (1996).
NIACE and UACE have recently entered into partnership
in the creation of a jointly-funded post to develop work in relation
to the issues identified in this response. Both organisations
are partners in the Action on Access consortium currently supporting
HEFCE work in widening participation.
UACE/NIACE warmly welcome the Government's policies
aimed at widening participation in higher education. The two organisations
particularly endorse the aim to develop a system of higher education
which, in addition to widening participation at the point of access,
will genuinely support success for a wide range of learners from
different backgrounds, entering higher education via a diversity
of routes. Supporting lifelong learners to begin, continue and
complete a course of study in higher education requires:
1. Retention policies at national level which
recognise the financial support needs of all students, both full-time
In England, discriminatory fee waiver arrangements
make funding support available only to those studying a minimum
of 60 credits a year (half a full-time load of 120 credits). This
has the effect of privileging one kind of part-time learning package
over another, with knock-on consequences for the choices learners
are able to make. There is no apparent reason why funding for
part-time students should be attached to volume of study. In terms
of retention, it has an immediate impact on the many adults who
are at a stage in their lives when they are unable to make a greater
commitment. A 10 or 20 credit unit of higher education study is
still a considerable load for learners new to higher education.
The current discriminatory fee waiver arrangements make it harder
for them to continue in higher education until such time as they
are able to take up a more ambitious package of study. It is notable
that this restriction does not apply in Scotland and Wales.
2. Institutional retention strategies which are
introduced and sustained throughout the life-cycle of the student.
There are over 400,000 lifelong learners studying
in higher education (HESA 1999/2000). Many of them are studying
on a part-time basis alongside other commitments. However, higher
education support structures are still largely designed to support
the needs of full-time students rather than the needs of those
entering and re-entering higher education at different times throughout
their lives. The need for HEIs to adjust to the significant proportions
of adult learners now studying at this level was a key finding
of the NIACE research. This applies across the full range of mechanisms
which support the learning process: administrative procedures,
courses, curriculum, teaching practices and support services.
(i) Choice of course is regularly cited in
research as a key factor in retention. Adult students often have
less access to the infrastructure of on-campus educational advice
and guidance available to full-time students, mainly young people,
and have suffered from the demise of local Educational Advice
and Guidance Centres for Adults. Reinvestment in this area would
pay dividends in supporting adult learners select the most appropriate
course of study for their needs. It is important, also, that universities
themselves create and publicise opportunities for advice, available
at times suitable to adult learners, making it available both
on and off campus.
The process of choice is not a single
event, however. Flexibility and the availability of alternatives
are key factors in enabling adult learners who have succeeded
in gaining some level of HE experience to continue. Credit frameworks
are used highly effectively by many universities as the basis
for offering this level of flexibility, and the extension of these
opportunities to all adult learners would have a significant impact
on the ability of adult learners to continue their studies.
(ii) One of the biggest threats for adult
students continuing their studies is the notion, described vividly
in many research studies that " I shouldn't really be here".
Any processes which inadvertently confirm this message at institutional
or departmental level will undermine their confidence and commitment.
Obvious examples are induction processes orientated solely to
the needs of school-leavers and Student Unions with no facilities
for mature or part-time students. By the same token, processes
and initiatives which affirm the place of mature students in higher
education will strengthen commitment and determination to succeed.
There are a number of successful examples
of this. Transition programmes aimed at Access students preparing
to enter degree programmes in the new academic year, introduce
adults with many responsibilities to the likely peaks and troughs
of Year One, where help may be available, and how to build peer
support mechanisms. These should be standard practice for all
"non-traditional" students about to enrol on degree
programmes. However, Access routes are only one route through
which highly motivated and capable mature students enter higher
education. Some may have specific "skills gaps". For
this reason, it is important for institutions to provide early
diagnosis opportunities and targeted support programmes in maths,
study skills and IT.
(iii) Academically, one of the key planks
of support for mature students in higher education is feedback
on academic work, furnished early on, and then at regular stages
throughout their course. The absence of early academic feed-back
on progress serves to re-inforce the uncertainty which many mature
learners feel about their role in higher education. Availability
of this kind of support depends on the quality and support of
academic and administrative staff (the latter often acting as
gate-keepers) and the extent to which this kind of activity is
valued and prioritised in relation to research and broader bureaucratic
(iv) There is ample research evidence to
support many of these suggestions, but higher education still
lacks clear channels through which the distinct voice of lifelong
learners may be listened to in the evaluation of provision and
quality of support. In what is now the LSC sector, processes are
being set in place to enable the voice of adult learners to contribute
to the process of development. NIACE in particular has been active
in this process and UACE/NIACE would be willing to work with the
Government to explore the development of similar channels at HE
3. Sensitive and effective measure for measuring
(i) As pointed out in the NIACE research,
there is a need for comprehensive and compatible data collection
systems measuring participation patterns of mature learners both
within HEIs and across the boundary between the LSC sector and
(ii) For mature students studying on full-time
or substantial programmes of higher education, definitions of
withdrawal should reflect the availability and take-up of alternatives.
Leaving a course should not automatically be viewed a `failure':
reasons for leaving may include progression to a higher level
award scheme, needs having been met without the need for a qualification,
the need to return to employment, unforeseen family crises, or
events such as moving house. Meanwhile, HEIs need to develop a
better understanding of when withdrawal is due to expectations
not being met, lack of advice, wrong advice, circumstances where
early identification may enable alternative choices to be made.
(iii) For many part-time mature learners,
measures of "drop-out" modelled on those used for full-time
standard age students are inappropriate. Staying-on rates should
not be measured solely in terms of "upward" progression.
The "ladder" model of learning is an institutional construction
which, while matching the progression of many full-time students,
does not match the learning patterns of many part-time adult learners
currently gaining benefit from their participation in higher education.
We are happy to come and give oral evidence
to support the submission or to supply further information if